Monday, August 31, 2020

John Bunyan

I have just noticed that on August 31, 1688 the English Puritan writer and preacher John Bunyan died at the age of 59.  In the Cambridge church, where I was minister, we had a large stained glass window at the front showing key figures from the story of Pilgrim's Progress, with a central focus on Christian and his burden rolling off as he looked up at the Cross.  Baptist churches do not often have such windows! It was a powerful reminder of the Christian message as well as of John Bunyan who spent his life within 5 miles of his birthplace in Bedford apart from occasional visits to London such as the one in this story.

So many aspects of his life are remarkable.  But I didn't realize until today that he died because of promise he made to a young man whose father, who lived in Reading, had become so angry that he threatened to disinherit him.  In the middle of August 1688 Bunyan had to ride horseback to London to preach there and, because of this young man's trouble he decided to detour to Reading.  He was already tired and probably his wife had not wanted him to travel at all but Bunyan had friends in Reading with whom he stayed and for whom he preached. The day after, he visited the irate father in the morning and successfully achieved reconciliation with his son.  About midday he set off to cover the 40 miles to London.  But before long a heavy storm broke and pounded him with rain for several hours. Soaked to the skin, shivering and exhausted he reached his destination where friends put him to bed, and gave him a potion.  He seemed to improve a little and next day worked on his latest book for publication. Indeed, he felt strong enough to preach but two days later pneumonia hit him.  A doctor could nothing for him and on 31st. August he died.

Some biographers have commented how typical it was of him to take key themes of his preaching - love and reconciliation - so seriously that he made this detour and suffered sad consequences. That he was pastoral to the end.  With all the other tributes that can be made to him we see he never stopped caring for people. This story really brings out the character of the man and I am even more grateful for his legacy given to us all.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

God's Growth Book 3)

 Completing the C's:

  • COVENANT - God makes promises to a chosen people, beginning with Abraham, in a two way relationship which is intended to bless the whole world.  The rest of the Old Testament spells out the story with its ups-and-downs through sacrifices, temple, prophets, priests and kings.
  • CHRIST - the pivotal point of revelation when God becomes flesh to live among us and overcome the barrier of sin by his own sacrifice to put us at-one-ment with God. 
  • CHURCH - a people within whom God's Spirit lives who now belong to a new covenant which is intended to bless the whole world.
  • CONSUMMATION - Jesus' return and ultimate remaking of cosmos.
3. It's human and divine - 66 books written by different authors over 1500 years comprise one whole story where God is intimately involved so that we can claim the Bible is the Word of God given in the words of people in history.  Within each time period God is revealing more and more of himself.  He doesn't change but his people are on a journey and only when Jesus comes, called the Word of God, does God reveal clearly the amazing truths of his love and reconciliation.  The way that human and divine work together in Scripture means that God still speaks through the words.

4. You always come to the Bible as interpreter. Most of us need an English translation which involves interpretation but we recognize that while for unbelievers it may seem an irrelevant jumble, Christians by contrast are promised the Holy Spirit to help us understand it.  The key verses from 2 Tim. 3:15,16 sum up so much that is important.  Perhaps some more in another post?

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Bible - God's Growth Book

Thinking about 4 key truths about the Bible I began:

1, It's the source book for Christianity - it's the only place to see Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection from historical eyewitnesses in the gospel records.  And it's the only place to read about the world Church's beginning together with Christian theology (God Talk) in the writings of apostles Paul, Peter, James, John.  It is essential first-hand reading. This seems an obvious point but it is critically important to realize that though Jesus didn't write a book, his life embedded in history is powerfully documented for the world only in the New Testament.

2) It's ONE whole story about God and his world -  the New Testament as the Jesus source book is Part 2 that must belong alongside Part 1 the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible of the Jews.  They belong together because only when read together is the whole story of God's dealings with us revealed.  Of course, for Christians the New Testament is the critical starting point. But, because Jesus was a Jew you cannot understand him nor his sacrifice upon the cross without the back-story in the Old Testament. 

Several people have summarized this one story through Part 1 and 2. One method uses 6 words beginning with C.   The first C lays the foundation for everything.  CREATION.  The truth that God created everything and every relationship with the intention that it would all be good in harmony with him - this is the conviction that undergirds the ONE story.   Probably you can guess the other C's?

CORRUPTION - sadly sums up the rebellion against God and breaking up of good relationships as people turn against God in self-willed living.  What the Bible calls sin.  

More in the next blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Bible - God's Growth Book 1)

The latest member of our church to be baptized and join us shared a vision at his baptism of beginning a Growth Group for anyone interested in learning more about the Christian faith.  Isn't this a great initiative? A mixed group of people at different stages of discipleship has since met diligently once a month with friends gathering in church (socially distanced of course) while others join in via Zoom.  He chose a number of speakers from the church fellowship whom he had seen in action to take up topics appropriate to each.  A wide range of subjects emerged including Personality and your Christianity, Work/church/life balance, Prayer, Practical Christianity, Spending time with God, Suffering.  

And now at number seven in the course I have to speak on the Bible. Just that!  Such a wide open brief though strictly time-limited!  The first thing was the title - it seems to me that to call the Bible, God's Growth Book not only fits the nature of the group itself but sums up one of the important purposes of Scripture that by it we shall grow as people more into being God's people!  As 2 Tim 3:16 puts it.  All Scripture.. is shape us we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  

It also set me thinking about what key truths would I use as a framework.  Could I choose, say, 4 facts?  I know that many of you have great knowledge and experience with the Bible - what 4 main things would you say to a group like this?   That isn't a rhetorical question - I really would like to know! Send them to if you would prefer not to go public.

I'll give you mine as they emerged in my thinking.    

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 3)

It has always been true that you can only measure the effectiveness of something by first having a clear definition of its purpose and outcomes.  If you see preaching, for example, as a piece of helpful Bible teaching then you can ask: Does this feed me?  And if it does it passes the test!  Certainly, this definition of preaching can work when it's seen and heard on Zoom.

As some of you may know I have tried to push for a wider understanding of authentic preaching. Of it being nothing less than the spiritual dynamic of Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in the lives of speakers and hearers together.  So, my definition runs:  Christian preaching, at its best, is a biblical speaking//listening/ seeing/doing event that God empowers to form Christ-shaped people and communities (from 360 degree preaching).

It is this aspect of forming Christ-shaped people and communities that is under pressure from an individualized Zoom focus.  Our belonging together as God's people growing and learning from each other must never be lost. Preachers with a wider understanding of preaching will always seek to keep a communal emphasis. That after a zoom session hearers can never walk away thinking Christ's challenge is all about 'my life, my purpose, my future' rather than 'our life, our purpose, our future'. How is this word impacting my life with Christian brothers and sisters?  One of the happy surprises Carol and I have enjoyed is the weekly zoom meeting of our house-group (ever since the beginning of lockdown). We all agree this has given new opportunities not only to pray in depth for each other and the church but for growth in genuine friendship.  It has complemented the Sunday zoom worship by ensuring authentic togetherness.   Perhaps in bubbles like this we can experience more than ever what it means to grow as Christ shaped people and community. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 2)

Many elements contribute to effective preaching.  The Power of Scripture, of Words, of our triune God, of the hearer, worship context and preacher. Experiencing zoom need not diminish many of these elements but it seems to me that the last three are put under pressure.

Active listening is essential.  One writer, George Sweazey, goes so far as to say: 'The skills of the hearers are more important than the skills of the preacher.'  Now we have to be careful here but often when we look at screens in our homes the listening process is different.  Partly because we are used to viewing screens as consumers with ability to choose according to taste but also because we can be distant and distracted all the more easily. It's not just that we can get up and make a coffee but the whole mode of communication has moved into the relaxed individualistic mode of television viewing. 

This individualistic mode which Zoom makes inevitable with its separate screens of our home pods is the most serious loss.  Because worship is about individuals being drawn together, into a congregation which, at its best, is 'a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ' (1 Pet. 2:5) Coming together as God's people, preacher and congregation, gives spiritual dynamic for Christian worship like nothing else on earth.  I think that we can compensate for some of this by preparing carefully at home before switching on, with a willingness to engage actively in spirit and in truth.  God can still connect worshippers at depth if we let him! 

I once wrote 'Preachers readily recognize the contrast between preaching with a worshipful congregation that is united in prayer and expectancy and one that is not. Within one there is a palpable quality of openness and responsiveness. Preachers partner with the congregations within the rhythm of listening and responding....but when a congregation is unresponsive there is instead dullness and flatness'. I still believe that! Happily, my local church has a hybrid set-up which enables preachers to be with a socially distanced group (of 30 people) while also connecting through zoom with many more.  I have not yet preached in this system but I look forward to the positive elements of going hybrid!

Technology has brought many positives in lockdown but we must be alert especially to the dangers of individualism triumphing over the corporate!   Are there other positives and negatives?


Thursday, August 6, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 1)

Others have also noted (and often rejoiced) that with churches employing zoom for their services in lock-down sermons have often shortened to 12-15 minutes.  Now for some traditions that is normal or even too long, but within the Baptist tradition that I know best many preachers speak for 25 minutes or (much) more. So, for some preachers this has been a new experience.  It's been said that zoom is here to stay for the future because even when we are allowed to worship freely again (which seems a long way off still) the benefits of allowing those who are housebound or travelling away to share are immense. (Now I know that it is smaller fellowships that have used zoom and I guess that larger church congregations who have streamed their services have not necessarily seen a shortening of sermons!)

However, staying with those that do use zoom this question of shorter sermons raises a number of issues. The important question is: Has the sermon lost its power if its shorter? Is God able to speak to his people less effectively? God has never needed length or quantity to make his point. Just look at the short stories Jesus told and his pithy teaching. Truthfully it's not how long a sermon lasts but its biblical reality and spiritual quality that enables God to encounter his people afresh by his Spirit. 

So obviously zoom challenges preachers about their sermon preparation habits including length of time. Why, do they always feel they have to preach for 30 plus minutes and begin in the same way?  Of course, I know why preachers hold on to the known pattern because they find it the easiest way to keep preparing. But it flies in the face of the rich variety of biblical communication as well as people's listening habits. Maybe, perhaps, zoom had shaken us preachers up in a helpful way to question well-worn habits. 

Less obvious issues are also raised by zoom.....

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Remembering Jim Packer

Jim Packer was an evangelical statesman - once met never forgotten.  Tributes have flowed since his death a few days ago which have shared something of his wide scholarship, Puritan roots, love of teaching as well as his zest for life. I first read his classic 'Knowing God' years ago and later came to realize just how important he was in mediating contemporary evangelical emphases. He was willing to critique N. American evangelicalism as '3000 miles wide and half and inch deep'.  Yet, standing firmly within his own tradition, he always sought to build bridges and especially hold together social evangelicals with theological and spiritual ones.

I was reminded of his visit to Northern Seminary and his session with the faculty.  Into his eighties he still showed such enthusiasm.  I asked him what he would include as essential if he was designing a syllabus to prepare ministers. To my great surprise he replied that he would insist on all students spending some time as interns in Africa.  That experience would broaden and deepen them like no other he said.  I am sure he had several reasons including life style/culture shock and the immediacy of much African spirituality. 

About that last point: though I have downsized many of my books I still keep my Africa Bible Commentary close. In recent studies on Colossians this commentary places an essay on Angels, Demons and Powers in the centre and it wakes you up to a dimension so often neglected in the West.

So, much gratitude to this giant among us.  One essay about Jim Packer went back to William Tyndale's use of the word evangelical which he says: signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that maketh a man's heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy. What a great definition of a life well lived.